Titanic (1953): Jean Negulesco’s Oscar-Winning Film, Starring Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner, and Thelma Ritter

There have been several films about the 1912 sinking of the “White Star Liner Titanic,” long before James Cameron made his smash blockbuster and Oscar-winner Titanic, in 1997.

In 1943, there was a German film, “Titanic,” starring Sybille Schmitz. The best of the subgenre about the doomed voyage is still the 1958 British feature, “A Night to Remember,” starring Kenneth More. (There’s another British feature about the subject, simply titled “Atlantic”).

In this 1953 version, directed by Jean Negulesco, a director known for his melodramas, the 1912 sinking of the luxury liner Titanic is again used as a backdrop for several fictional subplots.

The main story is just as conventional as the one at the center of James Cameron’s picture. In essence, it’s a melodrama about a family in crisis. The head of the clan is the snobbish socialite Richard Ward Sturgess (Clifton Webb, at his bitchiest) and his wife, Julia (Barbara Stanwyck), a woman well aware that she is beneath his class.

Julia has booked passage on the ill-fated passenger ship with her daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) and son Norman (Harper Carter), leaving her hubby behind. However, Richard manages to board the ship at the last minute, when he approaches a Basque family that have third-class accommodations. he convinces the the Basque (with a good amount of money) to give him his place and take the next boat to the New World.

Once on board, Richard discovers his scheming wife’s plans to divorce him. In the first climax of the film, the malicious Julia informs him that he is not the father of their son, which he takes very badly. In fact, he decides to cut himself off from Norman, who admires and worships him.

When the Titanic sideswipes an iceberg and begins its slow descent into the Atlantic, the women and children are put on the lifeboats while the men stay behind, facing imminent death with courage and nobility.

Most men behave heroically. There are exceptions, however, such as the cowardly cardsharp Earl Meeker (Allyn Joslyn), who disguises himself as a woman and thus manages to survive.

Richard redeems himself, when he acts with the kind of bravery that even surprises himself, seeing to it that several passengers would be safe. He is reunited with his son Norman, who has given up his lifeboat seat to a woman in a self-sacrificing act. All the former tensions are forgotten and forgiven, when Richard and his son face their final moments together. Finally realizing the strong character of his son, Richard is able to express his pride of and declare love for his son

The domestic melodramas are borderline banal, and it does not help that most of the characters are types or cardboards, including Thelma Ritter, as an “Unsinkable Molly Brown” type, Mrs. Maude Young, whose part amounts to playing cards and occasionally uttering cynical and witty one-liners.

Robert Wagner plays Giff Rogers, a young amorous fellow who’s courting Annette, and, at the end, due to an accident while on a rope, manages to survive, with the women and children.

Brian Aherne is cast as Captain E. J. Smith, a chief who initially refuses to believe the bad news that the $10 million (hailed “unsinkable”) is about to sink and thus delays action. At the end, however, he is utmost realistic about the prospects of the ship and its passengers.

Webb, an openly gay British actor, and Stanwyck, make for an unlikely married couple; we don’t believe that they were ever happy together.

A title card informs that the R.M.S. Titanic passes from the British registry at 2:20am, on April 15, 1912, with only 712 people in 19 lifeboats.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Story and Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Richard Breen
Art Direction-Set Decoration (b/w): Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford; Stuart Reiss.

Oscar Awards: 1

Story and Screenplay

Oscar Context:

The winner of the b/w Art Direction Oscar was Julius Caesar, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.


Running time: 98 Minutes.

Directed by Jean Negulesco
Written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Richard Breen
Produced by 20th Century Fox